Learning by Design – The STEAM Module, Part 8

Advocating for game design aside, good games are not made purely through playing games.  Yes, there is a lot you can learn from play, but it does not explain the hows or whys behind that knowledge.  In other words, a lot of the theoretical elements (and thus the vast majority of 21st century skills) are lost if the focus is just on how the game works. Good games, the kind people remember fondly years after they are lost or shoved on the back of a closet shelf, are not a collection of rules; they are contextual and rely on knowledge of the world.  Other than game designers, few people reminisce about their favorite game mechanic.  That is a really nerdy thing to do, even for designers.

Like anything, however, games can be overused.  Game play and design work best when used to supplement a class or as a library program.  They are not a catch-all or a cure for the learning blues.  The STEAM model is an explanation for how game design can help, not a road map.  This matters since you get diminishing returns using the same tools or playing the same game repeatedly in regards to skill improvement.  So, why include the STEAM model if it is not a justification for Learning by Design?

There are too many different ways a game can be arranged.  No matter how much research and discussion is done on game design, the modules for the types of board games cannot account for everything.  Games that use a track have endless variety.  It does not matter how quickly players might get bored of roll-and-move mechanics when there are more themes, designs, and art that can decorate a game board.  Players might not like the game, but younger players still enjoying random dice rolls.  But what keeps people coming back to a game is the dressing as much as the mechanics.  For instance, Monopoly is loathed and still remains popular.  One of the reasons is the building mechanic.  It is one of the few simple games (compared to wargames) that has this option.

Keeping this idea in mind, designers can make “boring” games fun simply by changing the theme and/or a rules change.  That cannot be done if the designer does not know the audience and their world.  Game designers have to make use of everything they can to build memorable games.  The modules can guide you in learning how to make those games, but it cannot turn rules into experiences.  That comes from the dressing as much as it does how you describe the game’s rules.  Suggestions and examples will be plentiful in the sections detailing the modules, but they barely scratch the surface.

Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 7

All this talk about STEAM for game design as a teaching tool threatens to suck all the fun and joy out of the idea.  So, why include it?  For one, there is the continued need to show that education does not have to be boring and that play is a legitimate part of the learning process.  Children learn by imitating as much as by internalizing facts and observation.  There is a reason counting cubes and number lines help students achieve mastery of math.  This is a concrete demonstration of how numbers work.

When researchers are working on making conceptual models real by demonstrable means with experiments, they have to use imagination and training to figure out the best approach.  Sometimes this means rethinking how a device can be used.  Other times it is pushing the envelope of what technology can do.  In either case, people need to play with the ideas.  Play is essential in daily life because it is how we solve puzzles.  People borrow ideas from other skills and apply them to new tasks.  The more experience people have, the more they do this.  Analogous structures allow leaps of creativity, but it really is the brain at play.

The brain rewards us for these “ah-ha!” moments with a dopamine boost.  It feels good to find something new or overcome an obstacle.  That victory is the brain rewarding new knowledge and mastery, which is why people (especially kids) love playing games.  For children there are far more new experiences to gain than for adults who have lived in the world long enough to make connections between disparate events and lose the sense of wonderment.  Yet, a pervasive undertone informs the culture that these sensations mean learning is not occurring.

Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 6



Game design relies heavily on mathematics to work.  There are several branches of math that are needed to make a good game work, but only one that can provide the sense of free agency and equal chances of winning in a game: probability.  Since this is more of an advanced field of math compared to the work most patrons and students (especially younger ones) will be readily familiar with, it is easily digestible using discrete probability mechanics in the form of dice, cards, spinners, and so forth.  This is a practical application of probability and does not require any theoretical understanding of the underlying math.

Math is used to take several metrics during game design as well as game play.  From the beginning of the design, the length of time required to play the game will have a huge influence on how the players interact with the game and their continued desire to.  Designers have to find the break point (without necessarily plotting it out on a graph) between fun and time.  The science behind this is tied in with the notion of “flow” and the psychological state of being so immersed in an experience that people wish to continue.  Too much, and the game drags, a common problem that people complain about with Monopoly; too little, and players will feel frustrated.  A good balance can be measured and compared to the artistic ideal of the designer to see if the game meets the requirement desired.

The other key metric math uses is to determine balance.  Even if the game uses an asymmetrical starting point, the math must not favor any one player unless the object of the game is to see who can survive the longest with the fewest resources with game play taking two or more rounds to see how each participant fares (fox and geese, Twilight Imperium, Smallworld).  Most games provide the same end goals for the players, but their particular strategies are linked to the strength and weaknesses their resources provide.  While this is on the higher end of the complexity spectrum, it is used for virtually all game designs.

Most designers and players will not look at the math in depth like this (though for some designs they should), but through playing and iteration, the designers can experience the effects of the probability and other math that makes play possible.  The adjustments made to the rules are often as much procedural as they are evaluative. So, while this is more intuitive, designers do have the ability to examine the mathematical structures used in facilitating game play and can address them directly or use any other element of STEAM to adjust the mechanics as needed.  This is akin to what scientists do when they conduct experiments.

Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 5



Game design often requires as much finesses as it does brute force to get an idea to take shape.  This is in addition to the work needed to make a game visually appealing.  Balancing the line between the two relies an artistic interpretation.  The reason is game design requires the creator to ask a difficult question: what does an experience look like?  Since experiences are felt and not seen, this is impossible to replicate directly and requires imaginative use of the play space, components, and rules to provide the audience with that experience.  It sometimes relies on story for more immersive game play, and sometimes on isolated skills with only a minimal context.

Art is used also to figure out how to get the game’s disparate parts to communicate to the audience.  In this way, it is directly related to Steven Pinker’s assertion that “language is the drive to acquire an art” as what players are presented with is the grammar and communicative tools for the experience the designer created (unwittingly or otherwise).  The process of design is a drive to present the experience in a meaningful way to allow players to derive meaning from the play space.  Much of this is subconscious on the designer’s part as few people use art as the main vehicle in game design.  It is worth noting that the process is not too dissimilar from performative art.

In game design, art is also the element of STEAM programming where the rules of culture and assumed associative states are relaxed.  This is the area where designers and players are encouraged to examine information and ideas in new ways.  The concept is best described as organized chaos as the seemingly incompatible data sets and randomization mechanics used to create the game co-mingle and fit well enough to provide the viewpoint change needed to see how the ideas dovetail more readily than otherwise believed.  Thus, how you present the information and ideas is as important as how you organize/classify them.  This is key to seeing how the technology used and repurposed in game play can operate.

Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 4



Games require a physical structure as much as a linguistic and conceptual one.  The question a designer has to ask is what is the most efficient and economical way to present the game.  Space constraint means designers have to make crucial decisions about what will and will not be included.  Depending on the type of game, this can mean restructuring of rules, board, or conceptual views of the playing pieces may be in order.

Practicality in prototyping sets the hard limits for the initial design and may also dictate the limits when going to finished product.  The technology and science behind the game along with the artistic take influence these decisions and can weigh heavily on how the game is structured in its entirety.  Designers have choices to make here that have huge ramifications on multiple levels.  The most noticeable is the visual appeal of the game, but it is not the only one.

The science and engineering work to create the interface through which the players can engage with the game.  The design has an aesthetic component to it, but the challenges in structure are prevalent as the aesthetics are merely the skin dressing the intersection of the science and engineering.  The technology also has to endure the usage it will undergo. Here, engineering is often employed in its most common form alongside asset management (space and component).

Another aspect of game design that falls in the realm of engineering is systems knowledge.  Each game has a system to which all components belong.  The taxonomy used provides the mechanism by which information can be structured, but the exact methods and presentation are governed by this aspect of STEAM.  Knowing the categories goes a long way towards implementation, but it requires a sense of construction to get the diverse parts to interlock in a smooth system without feeling mechanical.

Thus, from a design perspective, engineering is the second most visible element of game creation.  The various applications of engineering to the game’s design make it critical.  A good analogy for refining the structure until it works as intended is like herding cats.  Every element threatens to go off in its own direction as a result of the disparate nature of the elements forced to co-exist in the play space.  This last is where the next element comes into play.

Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 3



Games make use of a lot of tools and materials in new and interesting ways.  This is rooted in the special need to compete.  Finding new ways to apply tools is part and parcel to what technology is.  Game design uses technology as much in the classic meaning of the word (the study of revelation from the Greek techné: to reveal) as it does the tools available to the designer.  As such, games uncover new uses for existing tools as much as they do the skill level of the players.

Game design pushes on the boundaries of existing technology and indirectly finds ways in which other fields can benefit from what is available in other arenas.  This is an imaginative process and gives designers enough room to play with the materials and the concepts of their focus.  During the design phase, designers learn new things about the tools used as well as their selves, albeit this is not always apparent.  Each new design requires a new way of thinking either about rules, the game’s equipment, or about the information and objects subjected to rules paradigms.

Technology is often the hardest element of STEAM to identify in game design as it is nebulous in form as often as not for the reasons above.  It resists classification given the numerous ways that technology can be defined as well as in how each tool can be used and/or repurposed based on the skill set at the game’s core.  Ironically, technology is more elusive than art in defining the pedagogy of teaching game design and relies on more examples of how technology interacts with and changes the paradigm games seek to create.  To account for that, Learning by Design covers the core technical elements pertinent to each module that build off of or are in addition to the previous modules’ technologies.

Technology looks like it should be relatively straightforward, but it is not.  Pen and paper are amongst the most flexible and cutting edge technologies in existence, but writing implements and their media are quite old.  This is fitting as games take the old and make it new again.  From the drawing of the simple track game to the complexity and nuanced play of role-playing games, these two tools transform while retaining their core abilities.  Our relationship with the objects is as important as their use.  And this is what makes technology such an elusive element of game design.  It drives and is driven by design.

Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 2



            While on its surface game design might seem devoid of any scientific inquiry or knowledge, there is a lot of it being employed by the designer to answer some important questions regarding the game design project at hand.  How?  To answer these questions, the designer must apply a few different skills to answer one important question: is this game fun?  The question is a loaded one and appears to rest solely on a value statement, but the issue is decidedly more complex than that.

To know if a game is fun, the designer has to determine if the game is playable.  Given all the moving parts that go into a good game, this is not as easy to answer as it may seem from the design perspective without science as a guide.  Fun is a psychological state of mind and requires players have full agency and an equal chance to win.  The rules must feel intuitive to the concept used to design the game.  This uses an iterative process that follows the basic tenets of the scientific method for testing and retesting for validity and that the results are always the same (in this case, fun and free agency).

Making a game fun means the rules and components communicate the concept and goals clearly.  Games, like languages, have a grammar inherent in their structure that allows concise and clear rules to support the context the game communicates.  Thus, rules design makes use of the principles of linguistics to determine if the desired clarity is present or if a rewrite or redesign is needed and possibly referring the issue of confusion in the desired meaning to other elements of STEAM (covered later).

Game design is an iterative process.  Due to all the moving parts that come together to create the experience, designers need to refine their ideas using trial-and-error as much as falling back on experiences gleaned from the games they have played and other design attempts.  Thus, designers must often examine other game systems to see what went right and how those rules and/or techniques resulted in a fun, satisfying, and replicable experience.  Such a study can call upon myriad disciplines from visual studies to psychology to user interface and engineering concepts, to name a few; all of which are connected to scientific fields on some level.

Finally, what skill or closely related skills does the game favor?  Not all designs will need to answer this question, but to focus the rules to meet the grammatical requirements for effective play, this question is vital.  Thus, designers knowingly or otherwise employ pedagogy in their rules structure.  This is the method of reward that pushes the players to victory.  Good games use more than one skill, but they do so at the cost of greater complexity in rules and design.

Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 1

The need for STEM programming will not be going away any time in the near future.  The jobs of tomorrow rely heavily on the training and education tied in to STEM, but it lacks a critical component: the human touch.  This is where game design really comes into its own as a complementary plank in education and library programs, not to mention something fun people can do at home.  What might matter more for you is that your final products can be ways to entertain those closest to you.  Game design necessarily includes art as there is an immediate need for the continued engagement of players with the game.  Thus, game design focuses on STEAM to add that human touch.

Game design helps reinforce theoretical constructs by relying on visual models.  This matters as brain development moves from exterior to interior processes.  While this will be covered in greater detail later, consider how infants and children engage with the world.  At first, babies are limited to touch and taste to gain as much information as they can.  As they get older they try to assimilate other senses, but they do not have the benefit of experience to aid them.  They ask questions and try to apply what they learn to each new experience to sort out how the world (and language) works.  Games help with this by taking complex processes, like how to avoid hitting a car (the same math you use to figure out how to intercept a moving target), and making the concept easier to understand.

But, say someone you know is not interested in learning.  One of the hidden values of game design for those who are interested only in fun is that education underlies effective game design in all areas of STEAM s.  The designer does not need to be aware he or she is using these elements to benefit from the educational value game design challenges encourage game players and designers to solve.  What follows next is a synopsis of the five areas of STEAM and how they fit the design structure.

Learning by Design – Interstitial 1

The goal for this anyone using this program is to introduce people to design principles utilizing assets available to most people either through the Internet or through public access at a local library as a STEAM initiative that is as informative as it is fun and imaginative.  In effect, it brings people and ideas together through design to express and enhance ideas people have while increasing information and technological (especially digital) literacy.  Learning by Design is set up with anyone in mind who wishes to design games or wants to teach game design to someone as a complementary discipline and skill enhancer.

Under the guise of a game design program, kids will be able to engage with all aspects of STEAM in an interactive environment learning skills that have real world application.  To accomplish this, Learning by Design is be comprised of several modules that cover different elements of game design theory and the end goal to encourage people of all ages (albeit with a focus on kids and teens) to design games based on their favorite stories or as a communal effort to build a digital collection of games for a school or public library system that can be enjoyed by the community at large.

Outside of the professional skills one can develop, the modules can be taught at a pace that prepares kids and teens for final exams or as library summer reading programs in which a challenge to design a game based on their favorite story could be implemented to show story comprehension and the skill set of the designer.  The purpose is creative expression without competition or judging design qualities.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 8

Though I am not a big name in the game industry, I have been designing games and expansions for established games for over thirty-five years without formal training.  Most of what I started with was a pencil and construction paper.  One of my uncles made a lot of games for us to play.  These were from the roll-and-move genre, but watching him make them taught me how to create my own.  As I got older, I began to outgrow these simplistic games, but I still wanted to make games that were fun.  To do this, I had to learn how games worked.

How I got there was from the same uncle.  He owned a lot of board games and by the age of four, he had me playing chess.  Within a year of that, I was playing Risk, and as I my reading improved, I spent many days reading through the monster books for Dungeons & Dragons while playing Water Works, Acquire, Dungeon Dice, Statis Pro Baseball, Pennant Race, and a whole host of games.  Some of the games were easy to grasp and I remember well, but others were not so memorable.  That, too, was something I was fascinated by.  I was driven to learn what makes games work and how to make ones that people will remember well after they are no longer sold.


What I have learned is there is no magic formula to predict what will be a great game.  The mechanics can be solid, but the market and the general trends in a culture can lift or tank a design.  Armed with the information and understanding the direction a culture is going can prevent a game from being lost, however.  Even if being the greatest game designer is not something every aspires to, there is something deeper in the chase for learning how games work that makes the effort worth it: knowledge and understanding of disparate subjects.  The patterns that underpin any design can be applied to so many areas of life and fields of knowledge that there is something within the design discipline for everyone.  What Learning by Design is about is showing how these systems work and how they can be used to teach anything STEAM related without the audience feeling like they are being asked to do work.  Each section is designed to introduce a broad category of game types and look at the mechanics typical of those game types, but it tries to do so without overwhelming you with the technical details.  Those are part of the exploratory process and designers gravitate towards the design principles that work best for their ideas and they will study those areas more to create the best experience they can design.